Durham’s voters are majority Democrat, and so is the Bull City’s delegation in the General Assembly.
They’re all running for re-election. But in House District 31, there’s no incumbent. N.C. Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux, the oldest member of the legislature, retired and handpicked who he wants to replace him: Zack Hawkins, a party official who has not held local office before.
Hawkins announced his candidacy with Michaux’s endorsement and a photo of them in front of Major the Bull, the iconic statue in the center of downtown.
Hawkins isn’t unopposed — Erik Raudsep, his neighbor, is running as a Libertarian, and Torian Webson is running as a Republican. But Hawkins did not face any other Democrats in the primary in a county with four times as many Democrats as Republicans. And he has the endorsements of Durham’s two biggest PACs: the People’s Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
“In Durham, people will go toe to toe over a stoplight,” Hawkins said. “We’re the Southern equivalent of Chicago [politics]; this is a rough and tumble place.”
An endorsement in Durham can make or break a campaign.
So how did he get the party’s support in what can be a tough political town?
The Michaux endorsement
Hawkins wasn’t the only Durham Democrat interested in Michaux’s seat.
N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., who worked closely with Michaux over the years, said he heard from at least three people who were interested. He has known Hawkins through the party since 2004.
“I think he was just in the right place at the right time. That’s really what it gets down to. And I think there probably would have been a higher level of interest among others [in] running if Michaux had publicly announced six months earlier,” McKissick said. “Representative Michaux had expressed perhaps he wasn’t going to run on other occasions, and then decided to stay.”
McKissick said Hawkins was well prepared strategically to take advantage of Michaux’s short notice.
McKissick was a member of the Durham City Council before running for statewide office. So was N.C. Sen. Mike Woodard, who like McKissick is also seeking re-election. Rep. Marcia Morey was a judge, and Rep. MaryAnn Black was a county commissioner. They’re both on the November ballot, too. But Hawkins didn’t serve in a Durham elected office.
“A lot of people serve on appointed boards and commissions before they run; that’s not unusual. Less often it’s a political operative,” McKissick said. He wasn’t surprised that Hawkins wanted to run, though.
Michaux, 88, said he had been thinking about retiring the past five or six years and was looking for a replacement. Some folks suggested Hawkins, he said, because Hawkins had been involved in the Democratic Party and campaigns. He campaigned for U.S. Rep. David Price. So Michaux got to know Hawkins and his family over the past four or five years, he said.
Michaux said it didn’t matter that Hawkins hasn’t served on council or commissioners. Michaux was 34 when he first ran for statewide office in 1964. He lost that and subsequent campaigns, but won in 1972 when he was 42 years old. He served 19 terms in the N.C. House.
“Here’s an opportunity for a young man who’s interested, who wants to help move the state forward, move his district forward,” Michaux said about Hawkins. “We had looked at various scenarios, and we opted not that I would resign and he would replace me, but that I wouldn’t run and he would.”
Michaux said once other Democrats saw his support, they “basically agreed” that Hawkins was it. Michaux said he and Hawkins feel the same about policy issues, and he likes Hawkins’ work in education and support of historically black colleges and universities.
Hawkins and Raudsep, the Libertarian candidate, share a cul-de-sac where neighbors have an annual cookout and socialize across party lines.
“We live two houses away from each other and have been good friends for years now. I knew that I was going to run back in August of 2017,” Raudsep said. “We have got Democrats, Greens, Libertarians and Republicans and we all come together as neighbors and have a good time.”
Raudsep, 39, said North Carolina politics is so polarized between Democrats and Republicans that it takes away the functionality of government. Being a third- party candidate offers an option “so people’s ears don’t shut down.”
“I think having that neutral stance is exceptionally important for good government to succeed,” Raudsep said. “I’m just a common citizen. I’m a home inspector. I connect with these people. I’m not in an office. I’m out in the communities.”
Hawkins, 39, grew up in the one-stoplight town of Chocowinity in Beaufort County and moved to Durham in 2001. His bachelor’s and master’s degrees are both in biology and both from HBCUs: Elizabeth City State University and N.C. Central University, respectively. He spent two years teaching science at Southern High School in Durham, but most of his career has been in university development. He worked in student affairs at East Carolina University and is now doing the same at UNC-Chapel Hill.
And he has spent more than a decade involved in state politics for the Democrats. He worked on the Price campaigns in 2004 and 2006, was president of Young Democrats of North Carolina from 2007 to 2009 and more recently served as first and second vice chair of the state Democratic Party. He’s also worked on other campaigns including former N.C. Rep. Larry D. Hall, who is now the state secretary for military and veterans affairs.
Hawkins, is on the ballot as Zack Forde-Hawkins, but that’s an error, he said. His last name is not hyphenated. He has two middle names: Anthony and Forde. Hawkins said he didn’t run for local office first because it wasn’t the right time, and he doesn’t “necessarily believe in the stepping-stone thing either, just to do something to move forward.”
Hawkins and his wife, Tracey, have three sons ages 2, 4 and 16. The 16-year-old is a student at Northern High School.
Durham schools are a topic all three candidates for District 31 raised in interviews.
Webson, 44, the Republican candidate, is running for office for the first time. She works at Cree, a lighting manufacturer and marketing company, and said the Durham County Republican Party asked her to run. Webson said Democrats are always talking about raising taxes, and that to keep Durham affordable, property taxes should not be going up.
“Democrats don’t believe in low taxes and people having more of their own money. ... I believe in more money in our pockets,” Webson said. She also thinks that parents should have educational options and be able to move their children to the schools they think are best.
Raudsep wants tax breaks for small businesses. And for Durham parents, he also wants options, including charter schools.
“I think because we’re growing going so rapidly in North Carolina, I think there’s an absolute need for both. I don’t think charters alone are the solution or Durham Public Schools either,” Raudsep said.
The charters vs. traditional public schools issue in Durham reached the City Council, even though the county oversees the school system’s local funding.
Hawkins said he is “not a fan” of charters.
“They have a purpose,” he said, “but in my mind they were to supplement traditional public schools, to fill gaps in areas where there were limited options. ... They are not all accountable like our traditional public schools, yet they get money meant for traditional public schools.”
The last time District 31 was up for election, Michaux ran unopposed. Durham County voter turnout was 67.5 percent in 2016.
There are 226,594 registered voters in Durham County. Of those voters, 124,126 are registered as Democrats, with 73,578 unaffliated, 27,714 registered as Republicans and 1,130 as Libertarians. There are also 33 Green and 13 Constitution party affiliated voters.
Early voting starts on Wednesday. Election Day is Nov. 6.